Monday 7 November 2011

Atonement in the Westminster Standards: Part 4

In this mini-blog series that I have been running on the atonement, one of the aims has been to consider the doctrine of the atonement within the Westminster Standards. However, this was an over-ambitious desire because such a task would require extensive research. Instead, I will offer some general pointers for those who would like to study the atonement in more detail using the Westminster Standards.These Standards comprise a Confession of Faith along with the Larger and Shorter Catechisms. The organising principle is quite different to the Canons of Dordt; while the respective theological content would be harmonious, the way it is expressed and organised is different.

Personally, I consider the Westminster Standards to be the best explanation of the Christian faith in the English language. The Westminster Confession devotes the whole of Chapter 8 to ‘Of Christ the Mediator’ (with 8 succinct points) and John Murray once wrote that this is ‘one of the most remarkable chapters for fulness of doctrine and condensation of expression’. This comment comes from an essay on ‘The Importance and Relevance of the Westminster Confession’ where he explains that the ‘Westminster Assembly had the advantage of more than a century of Protestant creedal formulation’ and that it is the ‘last of the great Reformation creeds’. Furthermore, he summarises that: ‘No creed of the Christian Church is comparable to that of Westminster in respect of the skill with which the fruits of fifteen centuries of Christian thought have been preserved, and at the same time examined anew and clarified in the light of that fuller understanding of God’s Word which the Holy Spirit has imparted'. These quotes are from: John Murray, ‘The Importance and Relevance of the Westminster Confession’ in Collected Writings of John Murray, Volume 1, Claims of Truth, Edinburgh: Banner of Truth, 2001, 317 and 320.

W. Robert Godfrey has some important comments in his writing on ‘The Larger Catechism’: ‘The Larger Catechism is a mine of fine gold theologically, historically and spiritually (129)’; The Larger Catechism is ‘not at all a difficult document to read and understand. In fact it is simpler in its statements than the Confession (138)' ’; The Catechism uses ‘the covenant as the organising principle of this doctrine [the person and work of Christ] (139)’; ‘the two-covenant theology of Westminster is the best understanding of the structure of biblical revelation and the best key to understand the work of Christ (140)’. These quotations are from: “The Westminster Larger Catechism,” in To Glorify and Enjoy God: A Commemoration of the Westminster Assembly. Edited by John L. Carson and David W. Hall. (Edinburgh: Banner of Truth, 1994).

Now, for those who would like to study the doctrine of the atonement using the Westminster Confession of faith, then I recommend that they begin with Chapter 3 'Of God's Eternal Decree'. These eight points of doctrine are rich and they need careful reading, but in essence they affirm from scripture that 'some men are predestined for everlasting life and others to everlasting death'. The Westminster divines are pastorally wise though to teach that the 'doctrine of this high mystery of predestination is to be handled with special prudence and care'. The next chapter to understand the atonement of Christ has to be Chapter 6 'Of the Fall of Man, of Sin, and of the Punishment thereof'. This chapter outlines fully that man is utterly sinful and incapable of salvation, in fact fallen man is 'wholly inclined to all evil'. Then, I suggest that you read Chapter 9 'Of Free Will'; the conclusion of this chapter is the same as that of Calvin and Luther (The Bondage of the Will) in that mankind has 'lost all ability of will to any spiritual good ... and are dead in sin'. This chapter slays all Arminian thinking and rightly so because salvation is wholly of God's free grace.

For a further study of the atonement and the benefits of redemption, a good read of chapters 7 and 8 'Of God's Covenant with Man' and 'Of Christ the Mediator', should be followed by the chapters 10-17, effectual calling to the perseverance of the saints. I hope that my blog readers are prepared to work hard because all true disciples should desire the riches of Christ but these jewels need to be mined out.

Buy truth, and do not sell it; buy wisdom, instruction, and understanding. Proverbs 23:23.

How shall we escape if we neglect such a great salvation? It was declared at first by the Lord, and it was attested to us by those who heard. Hebrews 2:3.

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